Discovering Vilnius, Lithuania
26 Jul 2010
Among the three Baltic capitals, Vilnius (where the Tartan Army will be heading for Scotland’s European Championship qualifier on September 3) is the quiet little sister compared with Riga and Tallinn.
Still slightly immature, but fast coming of age, she’s also arguably the most fun when you get to know her.
Only 20 years ago Lithuania was still subjected to the control of the Soviet regime so it’s little wonder it delights in its hard-won independence and is brimming with optimism. The predominantly young population seem to have a sense that they’re at a good point in the country’s history; and that’s precisely why you see them out enjoying their freedom and revelling in their culture, once so harshly repressed.
Which is not to say this results in scenes of public drunkenness or objectionable behaviour, it doesn’t (and thankfully the British stag party scene hasn’t hit here – not yet anyway, but at the equivalent of £1.80 a pint that won’t take long). The worst that happens to us during our walk back from a delicious three-course meal that set us back £20, including wine, are a few encounters with the kamikaze cyclists who use (quite legally, it transpires) the pavements, not the roads.
Vilnius has the largest old town in eastern Europe, and it’s in this labyrinth of cobbled alleyways – with around 50 churches and what seems like endless cafes – that you’ll no doubt spend most of your time: people-watching, sightseeing or souvenir shopping for the excellent quality (and remarkably cheap) linen and amber goods for which the country is famed.
A disproportionately large part of the population seem to be in their 20s; many people speak excellent English and seem delighted to welcome foreigners. As these young people have grown up in the country post-independence you may have to seek out the older generation to discuss life in the USSR.
Lithuanians are very proud of a place that pretty much sums up the psyche of the country: the Hill of Crosses. This site of pilgrimage, about 12km north of the city of Šiauliai, is absolutely covered with the Christian symbol of religion (and defiance towards the Soviets) – crucifixes.
It’s thought that the first crosses were placed on the hill after the 1831 uprising against the Russians. Over the centuries, not only crosses but carvings of Lithuanian patriots, statues of the Virgin Mary and thousands of rosaries have been brought here by Catholics. The exact number of crosses is unknown, but estimates put it at more than 100,000.
Even when their country was occupied by the Communist regime of the USSR, between 1944 and 1990, Lithuanians continued to travel to the hill and leave their tributes, despite their oppressors’ best attempts to remove all crosses and symbols of national identity. The site was bulldozed time and again, but overnight the crosses started appearing again.
But while elements of this unpalatable history are all around, it’s far from being all angst in Lithuania. The locals love a party and, with the cost of eating out and the nightlife half that of cities such as Prague, visitors can enjoy themselves even on a tight budget.
The country’s beer (Svyturys) is a past winner of the World Beer Championship so give that a go, while steadfastly avoiding the local firewater Triple Nine (unless you enjoy the taste of paint-stripper).
My favourite part of Vilnius is the bohemian quarter, situated across the smaller of the city’s two rivers, the Neris. The signpost on the bridge declares the area, known as Uzupis, to be an “independent republic”. It has a 41-point constitution, which one can’t help imagining was written while under the influence. Choice clauses include: “A cat is not obliged to love its master, but it must help him in difficult times”; “Everyone has the right to be personal”; and “Everyone has the right to understand nothing”.
The most famous landmark of Lithuania is the impressive 14th-century castle of Trakai, which is 45 minutes by car from Vilnius. Set on a lake, it’s been restored and the castle complex takes three hours to explore.
The village of Trakai, with its attractive wooden houses, is home to a community of Karaites – a Turkish ethnic group practising a religion linked to Judaism, who came to Lithuania from Crimea in the 14th century as warriors for Grand Duke Vytautas. Today the country’s smallest ethnic minority, the Karaites account for less than 300 people.
You can enjoy some of their delicious Turkish-style cuisine in the Karaim restaurant, Kybynlar. Rather than joining the throng and “doing” Trakai as a day trip, make a night of it and stay over at Academia Remigum, a delightful guest house on the river which doubles as the local rowing club.
Back in Vilnius, the Museum of Genocide Victims is an absolute must-see. It is the most shocking but moving part of the trip, exhibiting documents relating to the 50-year occupation by the USSR, the Lithuanian resistance, and the victims of the arrests, deportations, and executions that took place during this period.
Housed in the former KGB headquarters, the building is said to be exactly as the Soviets left it in 1991. Among the exhibits are the solitary confinement cells, torture chambers, padded cells and KGB equipment that was used for listening in to private conversations. On the first floor there are dramatic photographs depicting the horrific working and living conditions of the hundreds of thousands of Lithuanians sent to the hard labour camps of Siberia.
But the place that makes the most impression on me (apart from the execution chamber, which still has bullet holes in the walls) is the “water cell”. Here, prisoners were made to stand over ice-cold water, balancing on a tiny iron platform. When they became exhausted and fell over into the water, the prisoners would be revived in a hot shower then put back into the cold water cell again and again.
As with many nations in the former Eastern Bloc, there is a reluctance to face up to the country’s own crimes and the museum makes no mention of the former Nazi death camp less than 20km from the museum, nor the fact that several hundred thousand Lithuanian Jews were killed there during the Second World War.
For all the suffering this small nation of 3.32 million souls has endured over the centuries, today’s Lithuania is a vibrant, positive happy country – truly a Baltic beauty. Next year she’ll be 21, so go and celebrate her coming of age.
When to go:
Lithuania generally has warm summers, with temperatures sometimes hitting 30C. Winters can be cold, with temperatures as low as –15C), and there is normally snow cover for one or two months of the year.
Star 1 (Lithuania’s low-cost carrier) flies six days a week from London Stansted to Vilnius (from £37 one way) and once a week from Edinburgh (from £25 one way). www.star1.aero.
The Vilnius City Card offers free use of public transport, entry to museums and more. Discounts are also available on accommodation and restaurant and cafe bills.
Lithuanian, but English is widely spoken in the cities.
Hostels are around £15 per night, with most hotel rooms £50-£70. Visit www.bookings.com or www.lithuanianhotels.com for offers.
Written by Katie Wood at the “HeraldScotland”: